Class War or Culture War: A Further Note on Consciousness Raising

Hypnosifl left a comment on my previous post that resonates nicely with a few other things I’m working on at the minute. They write:

Speaking of iPhones and their effect on the way we think, something I’ve wondered when reading Fisher (and other accelerationists) is whether their picture of the transition away from capitalism requires some degree of voluntarism at the level of social movements (the hope for a spontaneous shift in popular consciousness), or whether it’s compatible with a more strict historical materialist idea that changes in the cultural/political superstructure are generally a secondary effect of material changes, especially new technologies.

For example, if you look at the lost potentials of the “post-work” ideas from the 60s that Fisher wrote about in the Acid Communism introduction, I think a lot of that was driven by optimism about the possibility of increasingly “cybernated” manufacturing that could produce an era of abundance with little need for drudge work, optimism which did have a basis in the actual technological trends and expert forecasts of the time. I could see a future scenario where advances in 3D printing and robotics allowed for fully automated flexible production, and where this could be a catalyst for much more widespread interest in possibilities like publicly owned automated factories, basic income to make sure everyone would get a share in goods which were now much cheaper to make, and other changes that would move us to a new kind of economic system. But without those technologies existing or seeming to be very near on the horizon, it seems less likely that ideas like this could be the basis for a movement with very broad appeal.

There are two points buried in here that Fisher addressed repeatedly in the last few years but never quite got the attention they deserved.

For one things, Fisher wrote repeatedly and explicitly against any kind of “magical voluntarism” (as David Smail calls it), particularly when writing about mental illness. However, it should be said that “voluntarism” is typically used to cynically refer to capitalism’s emphasis on individual agency. In many ways, it points to a kind of neoliberal strategy for differing responsibility — Margaret Thatcher’s “care in the community” model of social care is a good example. This sort of care isn’t legislated, mandated or regulated (although perhaps it should be) and so, instead, it is left to individuals to pick up the pieces, as it were. It is very easy to spin this as a positive thing — this is the sort of community support and togetherness we want, isn’t it? — but this is simply a way of giving positive spin to state irresponsibility.

It is a bit like how some countries have become to trial universal basic income. Yes, we want UBI, but more often than not it is implemented as a replacement for the welfare state rather than being supplementary to it. In this sense, it is a quintessentially neoliberal reform. It is the amplification of a silver lining in a hurricane.

This is the difference between voluntarism and volunteering — the latter can be used to highlight the state’s reliance on voluntarism and, indeed, be an expression of collective agency that exceeds the bounds of neoliberal expectations. The question of how this kind of voluntarism relates to collective agency remains open, however — and there are critiques of this kind of collective agency often applied to the likes of JK Gibson-Graham and Hardt & Negri, whose Spinozism Fisher was particularly inspired by; I’ve been going back to this old post on the topic by Steven Shaviro again and again in recent months — but there is certainly nothing about it that is spontaneous. All Fisher’s writings on consciousness raising emphasise the fact that there is a great deal of work to be done to overcome the problem of “immediacy”, as many Marxists call it.

(We should also note that it is incorrect to limit “historical materialism” to the evolution of objects and technologies here. Lived experience is material — that only reduces culture and politics to a secondary level if we are deploying a kind of false-Cartesianism here between body and mind, nature and society, subject and object. The reality is more complex. (This is hardly a settled topic of debate within Marxism, but it’s what I personally think.)

The point hypnosifl makes about technology is related to this. Indeed, how we view our technological potential and how we view our own agency are very much interlinked. (See: Prometheanism.) The same problems also apply. Not all collective action is voluntarist, and not all technologies are emancipatory. The key thing that will change this, however, is our own perspective. Late capitalism, and its ideological partner-in-crime neoliberalism, have put blinkers on us. Fisher’s definition of “capitalist realism” is only an overarching consideration of the myriad problems we face. It is a molecular philosophy, in that respect. It is not just capitalism that we see no alternative to but also all of its constituent parts.

This is part of the problem that haunts questions around automation. I’d argue that it isn’t that we need just one more invention to get us over the threshold into a newly liberated space — that space is already possible with the technologies we have, but we are blinkered in understanding how they can be put to use.

This was another thing often written about by Fisher: late capitalism has essentially stolen a lot of ideals from the Soviet Union. He makes the argument twice, in two very similar essays — “Postcapitalist Desire” from What are we fighting for: A Radical Collective Manifesto, and “Designer Communism”, written for an exhibition by Christopher Williams. In both essays he quotes the following passage from Richard Stites’ 1989 book Revolutionary Dreams on the communalism of Soviet planner L.M. Sabsovich:

In Sabsovich’s vision, communal life replaces the wasteful and deadening private household, a “scourge that deforms the lives of adults and children alike” …

The aim of communalism? To free all workers (especially women) from responsibility for the provision of daily needs and from the private obligation of child-rearing and education, to make woman equal to man by opening the doors of her domestic jail, to release energies for the fulfilment of individual needs and collective life, to enhance the health of children, to raise the cultural level of all people, and to end the distinction between hand and brain labor. The means? The “industrialisation” of all tasks previously performed, separately and wastefully, inside the “petty bourgeois” home. Building on the whole tradition of socialist dreams of household collectivism, Sabsovich imagined the coordination of all food producing operations in order to transform raw food products into complete meals, deliverable to the population in urban cafeterias, communal dining rooms, and the workplace in ready-to-eat form by means of thermos containers. No food shopping, no cooking, no home meals, no kitchens. Similar industrialisation of laundering, tailoring, repair, and even house cleaning (with electrical appliances) would allow each person a sleeping-living room, free of all maintenance cares. Russia would in fact become a vast free-of-charge hotel chain.

For Fisher, these grand aims, which address many of the supposedly “new” problems introduced into our understanding labour in the 21st century, are even more relevant now than they were then. Whilst Sabsovich might have been deemed something of an idealist, the problems he hoped to solve have only gotten more and more pressing. It is in this sense that Fisher is hopeful. Concluding his essay “Postcapitalist Desire”, he writes:

The Soviet system could not achieve this vision, but perhaps its realisation still lies ahead of us, provided we accept that what we are fighting for is not a “return” to the essentially reactionary conditions of face-to-face iterations, “a line of racially pure peasants digging the same patch of earth for eternity”, or what Marx and Engels called “the idiocy of rural life”, but rather the construction of an alternative modernity, in which technology, mass production and impersonal systems of management are deployed as part of a refurbished public sphere. Here, public does not mean state, and the challenge is to imagine a model of public ownership beyond 20th century-style state centralisation.

In response, he calls for a re-evaluation of Soviet “relics” not as by-gone dreams but as models for “yet-to-be-realised postcapitalist future[s] in which desire and communism are joyfully reconciled”. Still, there’s a sense of hoping for some new world over the horizon here, but when Fisher returned to this argument a year later, these Soviet dreams were even more immanent to him. We don’t necessarily need to redesign the whole public sphere that we currently have, we only need to improve it and make it function as it is supposed to, and that doesn’t require the installation of a new technology but a new ideology. In fact, what is most embarrassing for capitalism and the conservatives who attempt to keep it on a leash is that they are now aping the communist and socialist ideals they otherwise declare themselves as being wholly against.

I mentioned this last time in terms of social media — I doubt it will go away under communism, but chances are we will be encouraged to use it a lot differently than how we are at present — but we might apply this same logic to capitalist infrastructure as a whole. Whilst late capitalism, particularly in recent years, has tried to sell itself (dishonestly) as being about communities and our “big society” and pulling together, it is utterly unfit for purpose. It is as if it has heard the cries for communality that our species has been calling out for but, like a petulant child that doesn’t want to do its chores, it has decided to deliver on these demands in the absolute worst way possible, in the false belief that we’ll stop asking it to help us as a result of its performative ineptitude.

Addressing this, Fisher rounds on a similar argument in the conclusion to his essay “Designer Communism”. Here, he returns once again to Sabsovich’s communalism:

If we adopt Sabsovich’s perspective for a moment, we can see late capitalism, with its shoddy ready meals, dreary franchise coffee bars, inadequate and expensive childcare arrangements, and disintegrating family units, as a blind and flailing attempt to attain what Sabsovich planned. In the spirit of Fredric Jameson’s startling suggestion that there are utopian possibilities to be found in something as super-capitalist as Wal-Mart, it’s possible to argue that, far from signalling the ultimate triumph of corporate capitalism, the success of something like Starbucks — which has proliferated through high streets and retail parks with all the implacability of a commercial super-virus — is testament to a thwarted desire for communism. It’s striking, in fact, how much the cliched attacks on Starbucks echo the caricatures of communism: both are condemned for their homogeneity, for their generic replicability. What if the desires that Starbucks caters for were nothing other than the desires for a public space that neoliberalism has dismantled at the level of ideology but which capitalism is now forced to reconstruct in a disavowed form? After all, what is sought out in Starbucks has little to do with capitalism or consumerism: the pleasures here are to do with the predictability and anonymity of standardised spaces. Many, in fact, go to Starbucks because of its public toilets — and it can’t be an accident that Starbucks has risen to popularity in the wake of the decline of public amenities under neoliberalism.

In conditions where the world is increasingly dominated by the same few multinational chains, it is hard to argue that capitalism is delivering the diversity or choice that it promises. But the poverty of experiences in such spaces actually make the task of revivifying public space seem like a surprisingly easy one. The very homogeneity of corporate chain space compels us to imagine a superior form of homogeneity: one designed for public enjoyment rather than corporate profit. Surely it is possible to envisage standardised spaces — public non-places — that are far better designed than the ones we currently endure? In any case, this is the project that designer communism must undertake.

It is in this sense that I would refute the suggestion that we need new technologies to unearth our vanquished desires. We are already finding outlets for them in the here and now, albeit poor and inefficient ones. This is why consciousness raising, and Fisher’s “psychedelic reason”, are valuable resources. We have to be more vigilant about how we view our present and the technologies that populate it, and this can only be done together. Whilst we can certainly start by taking better account of our own thought processes and the nefarious conditions that influence them — again, see: our “social dilemma” — we must understand how to short-circuit neoliberal “voluntarism” and turn it into a kind of collective “volunteering” that can change other minds rather than double down on the impotence of a moralising individualism.

This is to say that, yes, there is work to be done, but it is our various understanding of what that “work” is that needs to change.

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